COLIN LEWIS IS JUST ONE of the Lincoln County parents who has recently struggled to make ends meet. The single father cares for his four kids on his disability income. Thankfully, Ruidoso Food 4 Kids stepped in to assist. “The food has been such a relief,” says Lewis.

Founded by Elizabeth Potter in 2010, the nonprofit provides food to children, usually on Fridays, to cover weekend and holiday needs when school food programs are unavailable. During the 2022–2023 school year, Potter and 25 volunteers distributed 15,522 bags of food to 458 young people registered for the program, a number that continues to increase year after year. “Everything goes directly to feeding the kids,” she says.

Potter moved to Ruidoso from Oklahoma in 2008 with her three kids. She joined Head Start, the free U.S. Department of Health and Human Services program that supports children up to age five in and outside of school. Through her work and a connection with a local teacher, she and her husband, Frank, became aware of just how many families in the community were struggling financially and experiencing hunger. Inspired by a food program in Oklahoma, Potter reached out to its organizers and received generous feedback and advice.

After hearing of Potter’s efforts, a local community member jumped in with a $2,500 donation. “We were over the moon,” she recalls. “It might as well have been a million dollars. We went to Walmart and bought backpacks and food and packed the bags right there in my Head Start office.”

A month before the school year ended, she and Frank distributed 173 bags to Head Start kids. “The community just rallied around what we were trying to do,” she says. Teachers began requesting food for their kids. The superintendent fully supported their work. “Now, we are very much in all the schools in Ruidoso,” Potter says.

While the kids primarily receive shelf-stable foods such as packaged soups, cereal, and juice, the organization continually looks for ways to include healthier options.

Food 4 Kids first distributed food via backpacks that were labeled, color-coded, and handed out according to that school’s preference. When the backpack was returned, it got refilled. If a child forgot the backpack, or didn’t bring it back to avoid any stigma, providing food became a challenge. So Food 4 Kids switched to plastic bags and offered home delivery—decisions that allowed the work to continue once the pandemic began.

“If you’re hungry, how can you be effective?” asks Victoria Villareal, a bilingual elementary school teacher in Ruidoso. “I see it multiplied a hundred times with kids, because they can’t voice their struggles. The program definitely helps kids be more present and active at school.”

According to the latest Food 4 Kids report, 83 percent of parents whose children benefit from the program work full-time, and 76 percent of families are living on less than $2,000 a month, a 5 percent increase from last year. While the kids primarily receive shelf-stable foods such as packaged soups, cereal, and juice, the organization continually looks for ways to include healthier options. “Last year, overwhelmingly, the parents said that they wanted to see fresh fruit in the bag,” says Potter. Thanks to generous donations from two volunteers, the organization made it happen.

“Elizabeth knows me and my kids by name,” says Lewis. “She really cares about them, and it makes such a difference. She’s raising the bar for what we as human beings should be.”

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